Just Listen: Resisting the Urge to ‘Fix’ People

A big challenge facing people who experience poor mental health today – aside from the cuts in financial support, lack of funding for statutory primary care services, problems making an appointment with their doctor, the stigma associated with seeking help, and stretched resources within the charity sector – is the emphasis on trying to “fix” people.

There is a growing number of “professionals” who risk making huge assumptions about what people need (some helpful but not always appropriate) because either it worked for them, they operate within a strict system of “intervention”, or they saw it on Facebook. Even worse, they imply you must be broken if it doesn’t work or you’re “non-compliant” if you decide what they offer isn’t right for you.

An example of this was the Royal College of Psychiatrists tweeting that if anti-depressants aren’t working they (“professionals”) have three options: increase dose, switch the drug, or add another medication” (the tweet has since been deleted).

Medication definitely helps some people, though, for those who want to try something else, there are many more tools in the box. But if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As it stands, the GP – who gets on average 8 minutes to understand, diagnose and treat you at an appointment in the U.K. – has their options limited: to medication (which not everyone wants) or an often lengthy waiting list for counselling. People need help – and certainly hope – right now.

Celebrate the Courage

I’m talking from experience here. I speak with people on a regular basis who are navigating the mental health system, and part of a number of forums where people describe themselves as healthcare professionals. For the most part, these are people who genuinely do want to help. however there are those who seem more interested in power and control.

In one forum, a coach described a scenario where a client had come to visit. The coach went on to explain (within boundaries of confidentiality) the individual’s problem with stress. The client had every reason to be finding life difficult, due to a number of personal challenges they were facing. But the coach was exasperated, because the client was “finding self-care difficult.”

The client saw prioritising their well-being as self-indulgent and selfish – this is common, especially among women. The coach wanted advice from connections about how they could “correct the client’s thinking”. Cue a number of posts from other therapists, rolling out the clichés like “say that happiness is an inside job”, “you have to put on the oxygen mask, before you can help others” and so on.

Now, most research agrees that self-care is essential, especially for busy people. But if your life script tells you that taking care of yourself is bad in some way, no amount of me telling you that you deserve to relax will connect.

So instead, I suggested to the coach to recognise the raw vulnerability of this moment and celebrate the courage of this client showing up in her office – asking for help is a huge step – and consider how much it took to reach out. That by telling the client they’re getting self-care “wrong” because of beliefs about it, was probably yet another affirmation to this client that they were falling short in some way. Instead, why not remind the client of their bravery, and encourage them to find ways to look after themselves that feel healthy and comfortable.

If it helps, a person can unpack why they feel they’re not worth it, but even then that doesn’t need “correcting” – how they feel matters. By honouring their feelings and then encouraging them to find workable options, unpacking the “why” might not even be relevant.

It’s not “One Size Fits All”

Mental health can be a complicated picture, but everyone deserves the right to be treated like an individual. They are not a problem waiting to be fixed, or need a “one size fits all” approach, as if humans fit neatly in to a box. We need to mind our language and change the conversation about how we behave when people open up.

We can’t – nor should we – boil down a person’s problems in to one (albeit well-meaning) cliché or motivational quote. It’s no different to someone saying “You should pull your socks up”; if someone struggling could do that, they would.

It also requires a lot of understanding, and in order to understand, we have to listen. Instead of going all solution-focused on them, we could take the time to sit, meet people where they are and appreciate the difficulties – and complexities – of situations they find themselves in. We could then celebrate the courage it took to be open about it, asking them what they think would help.

We are none of us broken items needing to be fixed; we are all, as humans, just trying to navigate life from a place of what’s happened to us. Sometimes people cope in ways that are unhealthy, and yes when any of us get stuck reaching out can definitely help.

But when someone does reach out, we can empower them to find their own answers – to become the expert in their own life – even if they find a little guidance occasionally helpful, or want to unpack how they got where they are.

We can also recognise though – and value – just how far they’ve come.

If your organisation would like mental health awareness training, to understand what helps (and what doesn’t) get in touch.

Copyright Delphi Ellis – updated June 2023

Published by Delphi

Offers "educational side-bars". Aims to help people find their mojo and get their sparkle back. Been on the telly. © All rights reserved.

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